Unison members at Soas university were on strike on Thursday in defence of victimised union activist José Stalin Bermúdez – and many other workers refused to cross the picket line.
Stalin is an Ecuadorian ex-cleaner and Unison rep. Management at Soas sacked him after he helped low-paid Latin American cleaners to demonstrate against non-payment of wages and for the London Living Wage.
Some 70 percent of Unison members at Soas voted to strike in Stalin’s defence and pickets were large and vibrant, with students and lecturers joining the many non-academic staff.
“This is trade-unionism – one for all and all for one”, Stalin said to the workers gathered on the picket line.
Despite management threats that lecturers would be in “breach of contract” by striking in solidarity, only a small minority chose to work. Libraries, faculty offices and IT departments were either fully closed or staffed only by managers. Many students on their way to exams stopped to sign petitions in support of Stalin.
The campaign at Soas helped unionise the cleaning service as well as sparking similarly successful living wage campaigns at nearby universities.
Now there is a growing offensive against jobs in higher education. About 100 universities, including Soas, are planning to make job cuts this year, and union activists see the attack on Stalin as an attempt to “soften up” the union in advance, while simultaneously denting the living wage victory.
Soas UCU president Graham Dyer said management “had made up its mind to punish Stalin for leading campaigns to defend the lowest paid.”
Some in the trade union movement still push the divisive slogan of 'British jobs for British workers', arguing that migrants undercut general working conditions. But Stalin’s case shows the very opposite.
He and the cleaners have shown that migrant workers can both fight and improve their own conditions, and lead the wider union movement. For Nicholl, Stalin is “exactly the sort of union activist we need in the current climate”.
The next target of the struggle for his reinstatement will be the university’s governing board meeting on 12 June.